On Friendship by Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533 to 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, famous for popularising the essay as a literary genre. The final edition of the Essays was published posthumously in 1595. It was divided into three books containing 107 essays, featuring some of the most influential essays ever written. The first edition, published in 1580, was quickly translated into English and some scholars have detected the influence of Montaigne’s thoughts and phrasing in Shakespeare’s plays.

Essayer

I’ve always loved the fact that our English word, essay, comes direct from the French, essai, which is the noun form of the verb essayer meaning ‘to try’. So an essay is a try or trial, or attempt, to marshall your thoughts on a particular topic, to see if they make sense and hang together.

Thus Montaigne’s essays are the opposite of what most written texts up to his time had been, namely dogmatic and didactic. Instead they are tentative explorations, of what he knows or can find out on a particular topic. They are experiments in knowing.

A novel kind of autobiography

And this explains why he, Montaigne, is such a persistent presence in so many of the essays. They address not only the nominal subjects but continually shed light on “some traits of my character and of my humours.” They are experiments in what he knows or can understand. Or, as he admitted in the introduction, “I am myself the matter of this book”. As well as meditations on specific subjects, his essays build up to become a novel and innovative form of autobiography.

Que sais-je?

And the most attractive quality that comes over from the essays is Montaigne’s frank scepticism. As a devout Catholic he believed that whereas truth, like God, is infinite, the human capacity to grasp it is very finite, very limited. Chances are there’s nothing we can really know for sure. Hence the personal motto he adopted and had engraved on the medal he wore round his neck in the handful of portraits we have of him: ‘Que sais-je?’ – ‘What do I know?’

What, indeed. This scepticism is often generalised into commiseration for the plight of humans, endowed with a divine spark but trapped in a body fragile and finite and subject to a thousand afflictions, in a mind easily buffeted by emotions or pain.

In his own time Montaigne’s extensive inclusion of his own thoughts and reflections in his essays was criticised, but over the course of the centuries, as the essay’s factual knowledge or classical references have become outdated and antiquarian, it is the autobiographical element which has endured and continues to attract many readers.

All this is very well, but for most modern readers the most striking thing about these essays will probably be the way they contain blizzards of quotations from ancient Greek, Latin and Italian texts. In Montaigne’s day these classical quotes were what data and statistics are to modern essays – his evidence, his proof. Nowadays, they are mostly a pain to read (and a double pain because, since most of them are in Latin, most of us have to read them in translation, further undermining their utility) and the temptation is just to skip them.

To be precise, in these 13 pages Montaigne quotes from Horace (4 times), Cicero (3 times), Catullus (twice), Terence (twice), Ariosto, Plato and Virgil.

Montaigne on friendship

Montaigne’s essay on friendship forms chapter 28 of Book I. It is 13 pages long in the Penguin edition.

He commences with a self deprecating description of the essays themselves:

What are these things I scribble, other than grotesques and monstrous bodies, made of various parts, without any certain figure, or any other than accidental order, coherence, or proportion?

But it quickly becomes clear that the main body of the text is going to describe in some detail his friendship with an older writer named Étienne de la Boétie.

Montaigne starts by explaining how, some years earlier, a Latin satire against tyranny by de la Boétie came into his hands and was his first introduction to the man who would go on to become a friend of unique depth and unanimity. Which leads us into his theme:

There is nothing for which nature seems to have given us such a bent as for society.

Of a perfect society friendship is the peak.

Insofar as human relationships involve cause or aim or incentive, motives or calculation – they are not true friendships, which are pure and selfless.

The love between parents and children is nothing like it, for parents cannot confess their feelings and thoughts without showing inappropriate intimacy, and children cannot chastise their parents – but a good friend can.

Brothers ought to be friends but the fact that they have to make their same way in the world, from the same place, at the same time, inevitably gives rise to jostling and rivalry. Also, the connection between brothers is imposed by nature and fact, whereas the essence of friendship is that it is freely given.

Love binds strangers but it is reckless and changeable and fickle. Friendship, by contrast, is temperate and constant.

Sexual desire is the opposite of friendship. It is a burning flame which vanishes as soon as it is achieved whereas friendship doesn’t flame out but grows the more it is possessed. The more you are in company with a friend, talking, joking, the deeper the friendship becomes.

Marriages can be close but are built on legal and moral restraints, unlike friendship which encourages total freedom.

In a passage which eliminates half the population from his fan club, Montaigne asserts that women lack the depth and constancy required for friendship:

The normal capacity of women is unequal to the demands of that communion and intercourse on which the sacred bond [of friendship] is fed; their souls do not seem firm enough to bear the strain of so hard and lasting a tie. (p.95)

Homosexuality, even as practiced by the high-minded Greeks was, so far as we can tell, all about the external appearance of beautiful young men i.e. not about mature minds, like the friendship Montaigne is extolling. There is an inequality built into the love between an older man and a younger youth which, in the base and vulgar, often involves fishing for money or advancement.

And so, after this consideration of alternative social bonds, back to Montaigne’s friendship with Étienne de la Boétie. He feels it was fated by a ‘power of destiny’, because they knew of each other’s books before they met. And as soon as they met they had a complete mutual understanding. In fact De la Boétie wrote a work on the power of their attraction. It didn’t grow slowly through a hundred and one meetings and occurrences, but was the whole thing immediately. They lost themselves in each other and henceforth both were part of the other.

A digression to the story (told by Cicero in his essay on friendship) about Laelius questioning Gaius Blossius about his friendship with Gaius Gracchus, after the latter was arrested for sedition. ‘Would you have done anything for him?’ asks Laelius. ‘Even set the temples on fire?’ ‘He would never have asked such a thing,’ says Blossius. ‘Yes, but if he had, would you have?’ asks Laelius, and Blossius replies ‘Yes’. Cicero, the conservative patriot, thinks this is a disgraceful answer and uses it to establish a rule that we should do anything for a friend unless it leads us into immoral behaviour at which point we should immediately stop and drop the friend. Montaigne, on the other hand, admires Blossius’s answer. Friendship means total abandonment to each other’s wills and personalities.

It is a deliberate indication of the distance between Cicero’s stern Republican patriotism and Montaigne’s politically detached, sophisticated humanism.

Montaigne and de la Boétie’s souls and will were as one, they travelled together, read and talked together, they saw into each other’s hearts.

Montaigne draws a distinction between the Super Friendship he is describing, and all the other ‘commonplace and everyday’ friendships which most of us experience. With those one can never relax because you are never truly united with each other. One must ride with one hand on the bridle because at any moment this more superficial type of friend might do something unpredictable, questionable or immoral, and you must be ready to pull away.

By contrast the Super Friendship he is describing does not count help and gifts because there is a complete ‘fusion of wills’ and so helping your friend requires no more explanation than helping yourself. All concepts such as benefit, obligation, gratitude, request and thanks are inappropriate because they imply separation where there is no separation; there is a complete fusion of two souls.

He tells a story from antiquity about a man who draws up a will bequeathing his two friends, not money and goods, but the obligations (to look after his mother and marry off his daughter) which he left unfulfilled at his death. Bystanders thought this was hilarious, but it displays the quality of True Friendship which is that you are grateful to undertake obligations for your friend – you consider it an honour.

Mind you, the fact that the story names two friends to the dying man is an imperfection i.e. it depicts three friends. Friendship of the type Montaigne is describing is only possible between two men and no more.

Again he draws a distinction between ‘commonplace and everyday’ friendships, which are divisible i.e. you love one man for his beauty, another for his easy manner, another for his liberality and so on – and the grand True Friendship he is describing. This second type ‘dissolves all other obligations’. It is ‘absolutely single and indivisible’. A friendship like this is rare indeed and only comes along once in a lifetime, if then:

It is easy enough to find men fit for a superficial acquaintance, but here, where a man commits himself from the depths of his heart, keeping nothing back, it is essential that all the springs of action be perfectly clean and reliable. (p.101)

Compared with the four years during which Montaigne knew de la Boétie, the rest of his life seems like smoke, ‘but a dark and tedious night’ (p.103). He had grown so used to being completely united with him, that since his death he feels like half a man.

The text ends with a page explaining that he was minded to republish his friend’s essay against tyranny within his own book of essays except that it has recently been published by ‘those who wish to change the form of the French government’ (he means French Protestants who were engaged in a long low-level conflict with the Catholic authorities which periodically burst out into open civil war). And these enemies have published de la Boétie’s essay in a collection lumped in amid a load of their own tracts as if de la Boétie was one of theirs – which Montaigne strongly objects to. He goes on to emphasise that the essay was written when his friend was only 16, as a schoolboy exercise, and so doesn’t reflect his mature thought.

Finally, Montaigne concludes by emphasising that, contrary to the implication of the essay being published by Protestant subversives, his friend was a good Catholic and law-abiding patriot. This maxim was imprinted on his soul:

That he must most religiously obey and submit to the laws under which he was born. There was never a better citizen, nor one who cared more for his country’s peace; no one more hostile to the commotions and revolutions of his time. (p.105)

Hm. So although he was at pains to separate himself from Cicero’s moralising patriotism, Montaigne himself ends up doing something similar in the end, asserting, albeit a little more subtly, the value of true religion and patriotic feeling.

Thoughts

Having written a brief introduction to Montaigne which emphasised the modernity of his sceptical and experimental approach, I was, to be honest, surprised that the essay on friendship is so very much in thrall to ancient philosophy, to notions of Oneness and Uniqueness deriving from Plato and the Stoics in its depiction of the Super Friendship between him and de la Boétie.

Surprised and a dismayed. It felt much more medieval than I remembered Montaigne to be. He sounds more like Cicero, who died 1,600 years earlier, than Bacon, who was only a 28 years his junior, and gives frank, realistic advice which we can all relate to. A bit staggering that the droll, pithy Bacon overlaps with Cicero-quoting Montaigne and was writing his early, pithy essays as Montaigne was writing his final, wordy ones. They feel worlds apart.

Second reflection is that the essay should really be called ‘Super Friendship: On The One Unique Soul-Sharing Friendship Which Comes Only Once In A Lifetime’. It would be handy if that was more clearly explained at the start. And it would clarify that Montaigne doesn’t really touch on the practical aspects of ordinary friendship and acquaintance, such as you or I might experience them.

Third reflection is that the extenuation of de la Boétie which concludes the essay sheds light back on everything which preceded it. It makes you wonder whether Montaigne’s entire motivation for writing the essay was less an objective exploration of the quality of (super) friendship than to mount a spirited defence of his friend from posthumous accusations of treachery. A suspicion fortified when you learn that, instead of publishing his friend’s essay in the body of this volume, he published 29 sonnets by de la Boétie. I.e. that the essay is less a reflection about friendship than an embodiment of the obligations and responsibilities he felt towards a particular friend.

In that respect it exemplifies, it’s a contemporary embodiment, of the story about the Roman citizen who left his friends not his fortune but his obligations. It’s of a piece.

The essay is fairly interesting in its working through and conceptualisation of the type of Super Friendship he’s chosen to describe, but does feel rather airless and asphyxiating in the same kind of way that Cicero does, in circumscribed by a limiting agenda. I prefer being in the real world with Bacon and his practical maxims.

You could almost say that Montaigne demonstrates (in this essay at least) the kind of thralldom to ancient wisdom and to famous authors and dusty old poetry which Bacon thought needed to be chucked out of the intellectual world in order for us to really frankly assess who we are and how we live. Bacon was never able to describe this new world of knowledge since so little scientific discovery existed in his day: but his fervent belief that it was the right way to proceed turned out to be bang on the money.

Credit

All references are to the translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays by J.M. Cohen published by Penguin books in 1958.


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Of Friendship by Francis Bacon

Bacon is a hugely enjoyable read and his pithy brevity is a welcome break from Cicero’s rambling verbosity.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was born in 1561 into an eminent family. His uncle was the Lord Cecil who became the first minister to Queen Elizabeth. Like Cicero he made a career at the bar and in politics, sitting as MP for various constituencies. He was helped up the ladder by the Earl of Essex so when the latter rebelled against Elizabeth in 1601, Bacon’s zealous prosecution of his former patron aroused much bad feeling.

When the old queen died and was replaced by James VI in 1603 Bacon’s ascent up what Disraeli called the slippery pole continued. He was knighted, became clerk of the Star Chamber, Attorney General, Privy Counsellor and Lord Keeper of the Seal, finally becoming Lord Chancellor.

It was at the height of his success, in 1621, that Bacon was charged in Parliament with receiving bribes in his various posts, was found guilty, fined, briefly imprisoned and barred from holding public office. The king let him hold on to his titles.

He had always been many-minded, interested in many aspects of the society of his day, and now was free to devote himself full time to writing. He had already written a number of long works, in the three areas of moral philosophy and theology; legal works; and proto-scientific works, and now he added to them.

In his ‘scientific’ works such as The Advancement and Proficience of Learning Divine and Human (1605) and the Novum Organum (1620) Bacon promoted a universal reform of knowledge by sweeping away the useless scholastic theology inherited from the Middle Ages and promoting forms of knowledge based on close examination of the real world using inductive reasoning.

Though he died in 1626 the influence of these calls for a comprehensive reform of human knowledge along experimental and scientific lines was highly influential for a century or more afterwards. Bacon was cited as a guiding spirit of the Royal Society founded under Charles II in 1660.

Bacon’s Essays

In contrast to these weighty tomes, his brief essays on miscellaneous subjects were for a long time seen as incidental frivolities. However, as time passed and the scientific worldview became more solidly embedded in intellectual life, his big works came to feel more and more dated – whereas the essays, with their shrewd insights into the realities of daily life, became steadily more popular. To quote the blurb on the back of the 1972 Everyman edition:

The Essays consist of reflections and generalisations, together with extracts from ancient writers and examples drawn from the author’s own experience, woven into counsels for the successful conduct of life and the management of men.

They are not intended to promote a rather abstruse philosophy (as Cicero’s essays are) but to be pithy and hard-headed, combining shrewd reflections with practical advice.

They are wonderfully short – many barely more than a page long – and contain entertaining and amusing formulations, some of which have gone on to become reasonably famous:

  • ‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer. (Of Truth)
  • Revenge is a kind of wild justice. (Of Revenge)
  • He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune. (Of Marriage and Single Life)
  • The stage is more beholding to love than the life of man. (Of Love)

He added to the essays throughout his life: the first edition of 1597 had just 10 essays, the second edition of 1612 had 38 essays and the third and final edition of 1625 had no fewer than 58.

Of Friendship

This is one of the longer essays, at 8 pages (the five essays before it all barely stretch to a page and a half).

By this stage of the late Renaissance there had been a good deal of writing about friendship, going back, arguably, to the Italian poet Petrarch’s discovery of Cicero’s letters in 1345. The topic of friendship became of central importance to what became known as humanism, strongly influenced by the huge figure of Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian Erasmus (1466 to 1536).

All these precedents and the centrality of the concept to humanist’s notion of their selves and their project help to explain why the friendship essay is one of Bacon’s longest, but even here he applies his style of being as focused and pithy as possible.

Summary

A natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.

A crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.

In a great town friends are scattered; so that there is not that fellowship, for the most part, which is in less neighbourhoods.

True friends; without which the world is but a wilderness.

Whosoever in the frame of his nature and affections, is unfit for friendship, he taketh it of the beast, and not from humanity.

The essay is addresses three ‘fruits of friendship’.

1. The first or principal fruit of friendship is to bring ‘peace in the affections’. It is:

the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.

Friendship helps soften the violence of passions and emotions. It is psychologically beneficial:

No receipt [medicine] openeth the heart but a true friend to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.

That ‘kind of’ is very typical. Bacons finds thoughtful analogies, which shed interesting light on everyday topics.

He expands this thought by considering how great kings and princes have been so driven by the need for friendship that they have often raised ordinary people to be their companions or ‘favourites’ ‘which many times sorteth to inconvenience.’ I love Bacon’s Jacobean English.

There follows a long passage of examples from the ancient and modern world, namely:

  • Sulla’s promotion of the boy wonder general, Pompey
  • Julius Caesar’s friendship with Decimus Brutus, who went on to lure him to his death
  • Augustus’s promotion of his loyal lieutenant Agrippa
  • Tiberius’s promotion of Sejanus which led the Senate to devote a temple to Friendship
  • Septimius Severus and Plautianus

The point being that these rulers were among the most powerful the world has ever since but accounted their lives incomplete unless they had an intimate confidant to ‘supply the comfort of friendship’.

By contrast he briefly summarises the experiences of Commineus (Philippe de Commines, 1447 to 1511, writer and diplomat in the courts of Burgundy and France) under two rulers, Charles Duke of Burgundy and King Louis XIII, who did not confide their worries, were very secretive, thus impairing their judgement and giving themselves much torment. The gnawing worries which a man without friends subjects himself to can be summarised:

Those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts.

2. The second fruit of friendship is ‘support of the judgment’; that it has a comparable effect on the rational faculties of the mind as on the emotional, namely helping to steady and clarify our thoughts. It:

maketh a fair day in the affections from storm and tempests…it maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts.

Sharing our thoughts with someone else helps us order and clarify them:

Whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another. He tosseth his thoughts more easily, he marshalleth them more orderly, he seeth how they look when they are turned into words. Finally, he waxeth wiser than himself, and that more by an hour’s discourse, than by a day’s meditation.

An hour’s conversation with a friend helps us sort out our thoughts more effectively than a day’s agonising by ourselves. The best kind of friend is one who gives you feedback and advice, but even without bonus, just the act of saying your thoughts out loud forces you to marshall your thoughts and, often, realise what you’re trying to say:

man learneth of himself and bringeth his own thoughts to light and whetteth his wits as against a stone.

As to benefiting from a friend’s advice:

The light that a man receiveth by counsel from another, is drier and purer, than that which cometh from his own understanding and judgment, which is ever infused, and drenched, in his affections and customs.

It’s a simple metaphor – dry good, wet bad – but unusual and memorable. Our own thoughts tend to flatter ourselves, be kind and compliant, in a way a good friend won’t.

Bacon then divides friendly advice into two types:

Counsel is of two sorts: the one concerning manners, the other concerning business.

Of the first kind:

Reading good books of morality is a little flat and dead. Observing our faults in others, is sometimes improper for our case. But the best receipt (best, I say, to work, and best to take) is the admonition of a friend.

‘Reading good books of morality being a little flat and dead’ certainly describes my experience of reading Cicero’s essays.

As for the second kind of friendly advice, concerning business:

the help of good counsel, is that which setteth business straight.

There is a risk here, of taking advice in fragments from different sources, in fact two risks: one, that it will be biased and reflect the counsellor’s concerns; the other that even if advice is well intentioned, if it doesn’t take into account the full situation of the advisee it might do more harm than good, like a doctor treating one symptom without knowing about the patent’s overall health.

Therefore rest not upon scattered counsels; they will rather distract and mislead, than settle and direct.

3. The third fruit is more multifarious: it is to giving ‘aid and bearing a part, in all actions and occasions’. When you consider how many things you cannot do for yourself, you realise that a friend is kind of ‘another you’, a doubling of your resources and skills. If a man dies with many cares and responsibilities unfinished (such as the care of children) a true friend is like another you, who will complete them.

A man hath a body, and that body is confined to a place; but where friendship is, all offices of life are as it were granted to him, and his deputy. For he may exercise them by his friend.

A man cannot promote himself and extol his merits without appearing to brag, but a friend can.

More subtly, we are limited in many of our communications with significant others by our position or role in relationship to them, whereas a friend can speak more freely, communicate more freely with them what we want to convey, because he or she is not so constrained:

A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.

At which point the essay abruptly ends. Compared with Cicero’s long essay on the same subject, it is short, practical, to the point, entirely lacking the elaborate scene-setting of Cicero’s debates, and unconstrained by Cicero’s tedious commitment to Stoic theology and his obsession with God, Morality, Reason, Wisdom and the rest of his junkyard of worthy but baseless abstractions.


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Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Theatre

On the laws by Cicero

We are born for justice and what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature.
(De legibus, book I, section 28)

Cicero began writing the De legibus or On the laws during the same period as the De republica, i.e. the late 50s BC, but suspended work on it when he was compelled to go and be governor of Cilicia in 51 BC, and possibly never resumed it. It is certainly unfinished. We have just two books of 60-odd sections each and most of book 3 (49 sections) then the manuscript stops in mid-sentence. The 4th century AD philosopher Macrobius refers to the existence of a book 5. Maybe it was intended to have 6 books to parallel the De republica to which it is obviously a partner.

Like most of Cicero’s other works it is a dialogue though, unlike the De republica, it is set in the present and, instead of historical personages, features just the author himself, his brother (Quintus Tullius Cicero) and his best friend (Titus Pomponius Atticus, addressee of so many of Cicero’s letters).

De legibus has a simple premise: since he is Rome’s leading lawyer and advocate, Cicero’s brother and friend suggest he is perfectly placed to write a book about The Law, and so Cicero sets off with the aim of establishing the fundamental basis of law, before considering specific laws, whether they need to be amended and, if so, how. From the start Cicero describes and explicates what was essentially the Stoic theory of natural law as amounting to right reason in action.

Natural Law

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, Jonathan Powell explains that Cicero’s theory of Natural Law was based on certain premises:

  1. that the universe is a system run by a rational providence
  2. that mankind stands between God and the animals so that in creating and obeying laws man is employing Right Reason
  3. that human potential can only be realised in communities – Cicero derives this from Aristotle’s view that humans are sociable animals
  4. that man is a homogeneous species – we have more in common than separates us – therefore we are susceptible to the same, one, universal natural law which stands above (or lies beneath) all ‘positive’ i.e. merely local and culture-specific laws
  5. that law is based on (human) nature not opinion – individual laws may come and go but the existence of a deep fundamental law of human nature can never change

Natural Law refuted

The objections to this are obvious and start with the counter statement that the universe is very much not a system run by a rational providence. Since Isaac Newton’s discoveries of the basic forces which govern the universe, there has been no need to posit a God to create and keep the universe running; and since Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, there has been no need to posit a God who created the extraordinary diversity of life forms we see around us, including humanity. Many other reasons may be found for adducing the existence of a God or gods, but the regularity of the cosmos and the diversity of the natural world are not among them.

If God does not exist, didn’t create the universe and does not deploy a benevolent providence to watch over us, then humans cannot occupy a middle space between the animals and this God who doesn’t exist. We are more accurately seen as just another life form amid the trillions teeming all over the earth.

Cicero displays towards human beings the same kind of anthropocentric chauvinism and exceptionalism which was first recorded among his Greek predecessors and persisted through most thinking about humanity and human nature up till very recently. Only in the last couple of generations has it become clear that humans may have invented language and maths and built skyscrapers and flown to the moon but that, deep down, we are just apes, mammals, animals, and behave much like all the other mammals, in terms of our fundamental behaviours – feeding, mating and fighting.

If you have a God, then you can establish a hierarchy with him at the top, then the angels, then humans sitting comfortably above all other species on earth. If you have no God, the hierarchy crumbles and we are just one among a million different life forms jumbled together on this small planet, engaged in the never-ending battle for survival. Nowadays we know that humanity is killing off the other species, destroying countless habitats, and burning up the planet as no other species possibly could. Some people characterise our arrogant lording it over life forms as speciesism, a view I share.

If there is one quality that distinguishes human beings from all other species it is our unique capacity for destruction.

The notion that humans are governed by Right Reason has always seemed to me self evidently false. Our values are inculcated by the society we grow up in. If some values are almost universal across most of these societies this is because they make evolutionary sense, they help the group survive, rather than being a Universal Law handed down by a Benevolent God.

Therefore premises 1, 2, 4 and 5 listed above are false. We are left with 3, the notion that humans naturally live in groups or communities, which seems to be objectively true, but gives us no guide on how we should conduct ourselves, or establish laws or rules for running these communities.

Lastly, the introductions to all these texts by Cicero tend to talk about Universal values, Universal laws, and Universal human nature very freely but I can’t help feeling they only apply to the Western world. The terms of reference seem very Eurocentric or Anglocentric or whatever the word is for Western-centric. Meaning that my reading about African tribes, cultures, laws and traditions, or what I know about Chinese history, and my personal experience of travelling in the Muslim world, suggest that there are many non-Western cultures which don’t share these ways of looking at the world at all. I’m guessing the same could be said about Indian culture, or the traditions of the native Americans of North or South America, the Australian aborigenes and any number of other cultures.

Liberals may be proud of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the recently founded United Nations, founded by the soon-to-be-victorious Allies during the Second World War, based in New York, a document drafted by a committee chaired by the American president’s wife (Eleanor Roosevelt) – but the idea of universal set of values is not a fact about human beings but a high-minded aspiration.

I recently visited the British Museum exhibition on Stonehenge. This has a section describing life in Britain before the advent of the (first) agricultural revolution, which began in the Middle East 12,000 years ago. The human population of Britain was minuscule (maybe 5,000) arranged into tiny communities of hunter gatherers who lived deep amid nature as they found her, without the knowledge, means or incentive to change anything, to fell trees, clear land, burn forests and so on. Instead they considered themselves an integral part of nature, not set aside from it. They killed rarely and atoned for their killings with offerings. And the exhibition says this was the way of life for most hunter-gatherer societies for most of human history i.e. going back hundreds of thousands of years, back through all the various species of the genus Homo.

So I’m saying that Cicero’s premises are not only wrong in the theoretical/theological way that they posit the existence of One Universal God to explain the world around us, an explanation which has been utterly superseded by the scientific worldview – but wrong in all his factual claims about human nature,  above all that it is universally the same, whereas we now know that there have been, and currently are, many, many, many more human cultures than Cicero could ever imagine.

The Romans thought the world amounted to one continent completely surrounded by a vast Ocean, punctuated by the middle-earth or Mediterranean Sea. They hugely underestimated the size of Africa, and thought the world ended with India and a little beyond the Ural mountains, so forming one circular continent. The historical examples Cicero bases his notion of a universal human nature on amount to a tiny sub-set of the actually existing cultures of his own time, and a minuscule sub-set of all the human cultures and societies which have existed over the face of the earth for the past several hundred thousand years.

So: this book is clever and interesting in all kinds of ways but it is based on multiple types of ignorance – deep, deep ignorance – which lead to false premises and wrong deductions on every page.

Cicero’s motivation

As we saw in De republica Cicero was a very practical-minded Roman. He wasn’t interested in airy-fairy philosophical speculations for their own sake. He was a staunch Roman patriot who wanted to preserve the Roman state. The practicalness of his motivation is stated explicitly mid-way through book one:

You see the direction which this discussion is taking. My whole thesis aims to bring stability to states, steadiness to cities, and well-being to communities. (I, 37)

He is not seeking ‘the truth’, so much as cherry-picking arguments from the range of Greek philosophy in order to shore up his practical and patriotic aim.

Book one

Cicero asserts that:

  1. human beings are blessed with the ultimate gift of the gods, Reason
  2. humans have a single way of living with one another which is universal
  3. all people in a community are held together by natural goodwill and kindness (I, 35)

As you can see, all these axioms are wrong and he goes on to deliver a slew of equally high-minded, fine-sounding sentiments which are equally false:

Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. (I, 18)

Law is a force of nature, the intelligence and reason of a wise man, and the criterion of truth and injustice. (I, 19)

The creature of foresight, wisdom, variety, keenness, memory, endowed with reason and judgement, which we call man, was created by the supreme god to enjoy a remarkable status. Of all the types and species of living creatures he is the only one that participates in reason and reflection whereas none of the others do…Since there is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God. (I, 22-23)

No, humans were not created by God but evolved through natural processes. We now know that numerous other species certainly have memory, and many appear capable of thought and calculation. Who says there is nothing better than reason? A philosopher whose central subject is reason, which is like a carpenter saying there’s nothing better in the world than working with wood. Why is there nothing better in the world than reason. How about, say, love?

Since there is no God, the statement ‘since reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God’ is meaningless. Or more accurately, it has a meaning, but a meaning made out of words, in the same way that a poem about blue guitars floating up to the moon makes sense, but refers to nothing in the real world. On it goes:

Those who share reason also share right reason; and since that is law, we men must also be thought of as partners with the gods in law. (I, 23)

Those who obey the same laws effectively live in the same state and:

and they do in fact obey this celestial system, the divine mind, and the all-powerful god. Hence this whole universe must be thought of as a single community shared by gods and men. (I, 23)

In the course of the continuous circuits and revolutions of the heavens the right moment arrived for sowing the human race; that after being scattered and sown in the earth it was further endowed with the divine gift of mind; that whereas men derived the other elements in their makeup from their mortal nature…their mind was implanted in them by God. Hence we have…a lineage, origin or stock in common with gods…As a result man recognises God in as much as he recognises his place of origin…the same moral excellence in man and in God. (I, 24-25)

Cicero’s belief in God or gods isn’t tangential to his thought: his theism is absolutely central and vital to his entire view of human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice. And so, since there is no God, Cicero’s views on human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice are wrong from top to bottom. They may occasionally coincide with modern views based on humanistic atheism but these are accidental overlaps.

What makes this relatively short book (72 pages) so hard to read is that I disagreed with all his premises and almost all his conclusions. As a discussion of the theoretical basis of law and justice I found it useless. It has a sort of historical usefulness in shedding a very clear light on how a leading Roman lawyer conceived his profession and clearly explaining the kind of arguments about jurisprudence which were common in his day. And it includes references to Greek and Roman history which are anecdotally interesting. But every time he makes a general statement I find myself totally disagreeing and this eventually becomes very wearing:

Nature has lavished such a wealth of things on men for their use and convenience that every growing thing seems to have been given to us on purpose; it does not come into existence by chance. (I, 26)

Wrong: the life forms we see around us evolved by the process explained by Darwin, of which Cicero knows nothing; none of them were created ‘for our convenience’, instead food crops and livestock only began to be bred and fine-tuned for our use during the agricultural revolution which began some 10,000 years before Cicero’s time, of which he knew and understood nothing.

And the world does not exist ‘for our convenience’: it is precisely this self-centred sense of human privilege and entitlement which is very obviously destroying the earth in our own time.

God has created and equipped man in this way, intending him to take precedence over everything else. (I, 27)

Anthropocentrism. Narcissism*. Human chauvinism. Arrogance.

Nature made man alone erect, encouraging him to gaze at the heavens as being akin to him and his original home. (I, 27)

Sweet, poetic and false.

Cicero goes on to make the humanistic claim that people have more in common than separates them, we are all one human family. He is not stating this because he’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony but because he wants to continue his thought that there is One God who has created one human race with One Reason and so it follows that there must be One Law to rule them all. Hence his insistence that there is One Human Nature. He claims that Reason:

  • may vary in what it teaches but is constant in its ability to learn
  • that what we perceive through the senses, we all perceive alike
  • that perceptions which impinge on our minds do so on all minds in the same way
  • that human speech may use different words but expresses the same ideas
  • troubles and joys, desires and fears haunt the minds of all alike

He is trying to corral human nature into his One God, One Reason, One Human Nature therefore One Law argument, but each of those four statements is questionable or wrong, starting with the notion that everyone is alike in the ability to learn and ending with the notion that we all experience the same emotions. Demonstrably false.

This is the evidence, in reality just wishes and assertions, which leads him to conclude that there is One Justice and that it derives from Nature (I, 33). Again and again he repeats the same formulas:

There is one, single, justice. It binds together human society and has been established by one, single law. That law is right reason in commanding and forbidding. (I, 42)

We are inclined by nature to have a regard for others and that is the basis of justice. (I, 43)

But repeating false claims doesn’t make them true.

Nature has created perceptions that we have in common, and has sketched them in such a way that we classify honourable things as virtues and dishonourable things as vices. (I, 44)

And yet Cicero saw Scipio Africanus, the general who oversaw the complete destruction of Carthage and the selling of its entire population of 50,000 into slavery as an epitome of virtue and honour and glory. Is that a perception we all have in common? Probably not the population of Carthage.

Moral excellence is reason fully developed and that is certainly grounded in nature. (I, 45)

Goodness itself is good not because of people’s opinions but because of nature. (I, 46)

Here and in many other similar formulations you can see that what he is arguing against is the notion that goodness and morality and law are contingent upon human societies. If this is true then, for a patriotic, socially-minded conservative like Cicero, what follows is anarchy. (It is the same fear of anarchy which underpins his conservative preference to keep on worshipping the gods according to the traditional ceremonies, as expressed in De rerum deorum.)

For more pragmatic, sceptical and utilitarian-minded people like myself, what follows is not anarchy, but is certainly a complex and never-ending process of trying to create culture, morality and laws which allow for diversity and strike a balance between conflicting opinions, classes and needs. The unending messiness of democracy, in other words.

Book one is essentially in two parts: up to section 40-something he is laying down these basic principles, and then gets his brother and best friend to enthusiastically vouch that he has certainly proved them, that men were endowed with reason by the gods, men live with one another in the same way everywhere, and that all human communities are held together by the same universal justice (I, 35).

All good men love what is fair in itself and what is right in itself. (I, 48)

In the second half he introduces, or wanders off to consider, notions of the good and morality. Sometimes, reading Cicero, it feels like you can see the joins, the places where he moved from copying one Greek text to suddenly copying from another. The order is his but much of the source content is cribbed from Greek originals (as he freely admits in his letters and in the texts themselves) with the result that his works rarely feel like they have a steady clear direction of travel, but more like a collection of related topics thrown loosely together. And this partly explains why his so-called conclusions rarely feel really justified by what has preceded them.

The conclusion is obvious from what has been said, namely that one should strive after justice and every moral virtue for their own sake. (I, 48)

Therefore what is right should be sought and cultivated for itself. (I, 48)

The t-shirt slogans keep on coming:

Justice looks for no prize; it is sought for itself and is at once the cause and meaning of all virtues. (I, 48)

This reminds me of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… (1 Corinthians 13:4)

And the comparison confirms my sense that Cicero’s writings are less philosophy than wisdom literature, defined as: “statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue.”

A fundamental mistake he makes is common to dogmatists of his type, namely the false dilemma or false dichotomy, “an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” For, Cicero argues, if his account of One God endowing One Human Race with One Right Reason so that Justice and Virtue arise out of Nature is wrong – then the only alternative is chaos. For if people only act in their own self-interest, not according to Universal Justice, then:

where is a generous person to be found…what becomes of gratitude…where is that holy thing, friendship…what are we to say of restraint, temperance, and self-control? What od modesty, decency and chastity?… then there is no such thing as justice at all. (I, 49-50)

But this is a false dichotomy. There aren’t just two stark alternatives. There are, in reality, a huge variety of societies, laws, customs and traditions. Yes it may look like anarchy to a conservative like Cicero. But it is how human beings actually live. The false dichotomy is a way for an author to terrorise you into accepting his tendentious view.

Cicero is not seeking ‘the truth’; he is, like the excellent lawyer he was, making a case and using every rhetorical and logical sleight of hand to do so.

Quintus asks where all this is going (I, 52) and Marcus replies that he is steering the discussion towards a definition of the Highest Good. Oh God, how boring. As with all these conservative/authoritarian thinkers, there can only be one of everything, One God, One Human Nature, One Reason, One Justice, One State and One Good.

As usual he a) approaches the problem through a blizzard of references to Greek philosophers including Phaedrus, the Academy, Zeno, the Old Academy, Antiochus, Chios, Aristotle, Plato and b) fails to reach any meaningful conclusion. Whereas the Old Academy called what is honourable the highest good, Zeno said it was the only good, holding the same beliefs as Aristotle but using different terms. (I, 55).

Quintus suggests that:

There is no doubt about it: the highest good is either to live according to nature (i.e. to enjoy a life of moderation governed by moral excellence) or to follow nature and to live, so to speak, by the law (i.e. as far as possible to omit nothing in order to achieve what nature requires, which means the same as this: to live, as it were, by a code of moral excellence). (I, 56)

Great. Does that help anyone? No. Words, words, words. But when Quintus asks him to show what all this means in practice, Cicero at first pleads that it is beyond his powers. What isn’t beyond his powers is more highfalutin’ truisms:

Wisdom is the mother of all good things; the love of her gives us the word ‘philosophy’ from the Greek. Of all the gifts which the immortal gods have bestowed on human life none is richer or more abundant or more desirable. (I, 58)

Cicero deflects to invoke the famous maxim carved above the oracle at Delphi, Know thyself:

The person who knows himself will first of all realise that he possesses something divine, and he will compare his own inner nature to a kind of holy image placed within a temple. (I, 59)

Will he? The book concludes with a half page hymn of praise to the Truly Great Man Who Knows Himself, understands his mind is a gift from God, understands Wisdom and Virtue and Justice, and so is ideally placed to rule over his fellow men. In other words, the ideal Roman ruler of Cicero’s own time.

Book two

As a break, the characters describe the fictional walk they are taking through the countryside of around the Cicero family estate outside Cicero’s home town of Arpinum, 100 kilometres south east of Rome. Pleasant chat about the view (‘What could be more delightful?’) is artfully placed in order to lead on to consideration of love of birthplace and country. Never forget that Cicero was a fierce Roman patriot. A person’s birthplace:

is the country for which we should be willing to die, to which we should devote ourselves heart and soul, and on whose altar we should dedicate and consecrate all that is our. (II, 5)

All that is ours. Cicero is usually referred to as a lovely humanist but this is as fierce and total a patriotism as Mussolini’s. And then we return to consideration of the law and Cicero recapitulates his axioms for the umpteenth time:

Law was not thought up by the intelligence of human beings, nor is it some kind of resolution passed by communities, but rather an eternal force which rules the world by the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions…the original and final law is the intelligence of God, who ordains or forbids everything through reason. Hence that law which the gods have given to the human race is rightly praised, for it represents the intelligence of a wise man directed to issuing commands and prohibitions. (II, 8)

I think I disagree with pretty much every word of this. On it goes: the power of encouraging people to right actions:

is not only older than the existence of communities and states; it is coeval with that god who watches over and rules heaven and earth. (II, 10)

Repetition

If in doubt, repeat it again and again, bludgeoning your readers into submission:

Reason existed, reason derived from the nature of the universe, impelling people to right actions and restraining them from wrong. That reason did not first become law even it was written down, but rather when it came into being. And it came into being at the same time as the divine mind. Therefore the authentic original law, whose function is to command and forbid, is the right reason of Jupiter, Lord of all. (II, 10)

Mind you, in a note to page 162 Jonathan Powell points out that repeating ideas in different formulations in order to drive it home was a skill that was taught and practiced in the schools of rhetoric which Cicero attended.

The use value of religion

I mentioned above how the conservative Cicero thought religion should be kept up in order to maintain social structure, for its use value. In book two he makes this explicit:

Who would deny that these [religious] ideas are useful, bearing in mind how many contracts are strengthened by the swearing of oaths, how valuable religious scruples are for guaranteeing treaties, how many people are restrained from crime for fear of divine retribution…(II, 16)

One of the reasons Cicero despises and mocks Epicureans is because they sought to free people’s minds from fear of the gods. For Cicero (as for the ancient Jews) piety and morality begin with fear of the gods. This is very Roman, very practical-minded of Cicero. And explains why the population has to be brainwashed into believing in the gods:

Citizens should first of all be convinced of this, that the gods are lords and masters of everything; that what is done is done by their decision and authority; that they are, moreover, great benefactors of mankind and observe what kind of person everyone is…Minds imbued with these facts will surely not deviate from true and wholesome ideas. (II, 15)

I don’t need to point out how coercive and authoritarian this idea is. The gods are Big Brother, watching you, reading your thoughts, checking up that you obey Right Reason, as defined by Cicero and his class.

That said, Cicero’s attitude really only reflected the attitudes of most educated men of his time. They didn’t believe in their religion in the same way a Christian or Muslim believes in their God. Roman religion was, as Jonathan Powell puts it, by this period a matter almost entirely of public ritual, tradition and custom. Religious belief, in the post-Christian sense of the word, wasn’t required or checked. Obedience to custom and ritual, reverence for tradition, was all.

Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion

All of which explains why, when he comes to actually enumerate the laws in his ideal state, Cicero does so with Laws Governing Religion. Anti-climactically, these turn out to be pretty much the same laws as govern Rome. Just as De republica concluded that the Roman constitution was the best imaginable constitution (a conclusion he repeatedly refers to here e.g. II, 23), so De legibus, when push comes to shove, concludes that the best possible laws the human mind could devise are…exactly the same as the laws of ancient Rome (II, 23).

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: a relatively considered statement of Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion (sections 18 to 22) followed by a detailed commentary on each of them (sections 23 to 60). There follow pages and pages of detailed prescriptions about religious rites and rituals, an extraordinary level of detailed specification. There’s a short digression about the proper regulation of music to stop it becoming immoral and corrupting which made me think of Mary Whitehouse and demonstrates Cicero’s cultural conservatism, before we plunge back into thickets of religious law.

The contrast between the high minded rhetoric about the One God and Universal Human Nature and Divine Law in book one and the slavish iteration of Roman rules and regulations as the actual embodiment of this supposedly Universal Law is unintentionally comic. Bathos = “an effect of anti-climax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.”

The place of burial is not called a grave until the rites have been conducted and the pig has been slain. (II, 57)

Do not smooth the pure with a trowel. (II, 59)

Women shall not scratch their cheeks on the occasion of a funeral. (II, 64)

It is forbidden to decorate a tomb with stucco work. (II, 65)

Do these sound like the Universal Laws indicative of the Divine Mind which Cicero has been banging on about…or the customs and conventions accumulated by one particular little city state?

Once this lengthy and hyper-detailed account of Rome’s religious laws is finished, Cicero announces that the next most important element in the structure of the state is magistrates and that he will devote the next book to considering the ideal magistrate.

Book three

Cicero bases his thoughts about magistrates, like his thoughts about everything else, on God:

Nothing is so closely bound up with the decrees and terms of nature…as authority. Without that, no house or clan or state can survive – no nor the human race, nor the whole of nature, nor the very universe itself. For the universe obeys God; land and sea abide by the laws of the universe; and human life is subject to the commands of the supreme law. (III, 3)

As with book two, he gives a clipped concise statement of his ideal laws governing magistracies or public offices (sections 6 to 11, 3 pages) then a detailed commentary on them (sections 12 to 47, 14 pages).

And yet again he repeats that, since his ‘six previous books’ (i.e the De republica) ‘proved’ that the Roman constitution was the best one conceivable by the human mind, so, logically enough, the kind of Ideal Magistrate he intends to describe will also turn out to be…Roman ones!

And so indeed, it turns out, after consulting the Divine Mind, that the optimum state will feature quaestors, aediles, praetors, consuls and censors, a senate to propose laws and popular assemblies to vote on them – exactly like the Roman state! He has the good grace to have his characters admit that this is a little embarrassing:

QUINTUS: How succinctly, Marcus, you have drawn up a scheme of all the magistrates for our inspection! But they are almost identical with those of our own country, even if you have introduced a little novelty.
MARCUS: Yes, we are talking about the harmoniously mixed constitution which Scipio praised in those books and prefers to all others…and since our constitution was given the most sensible and well-adjusted form by our ancestors, I found little or nothing to change in the laws. (III, 12)

The latter part of book three goes into considerable details about all aspects of the Roman constitution, the peculiarities of the different magistracies, the age limits, the pros and cons of the tribunate, the different types of voting (by acclamation, writing down, secret ballot) and so on. This is quite interesting because it is, arguably, the most practical part of the book, describing Rome’s actual constitutional practices and debating points Cicero (or his more conservative brother, Quintus) would like to change, a bit, not too much.

Worth emphasising that the aim of all the tinkering round the edges which Cicero proposes is to ensure that power remains firmly in the hands of the aristocracy and out of the hands of the people at large.

Liberty will exist in the sense that the people are given the opportunity to do the aristocracy an honourable favour.

Thanks to my [proposed] law, the appearance of liberty is given to the people [and] the authority of the aristocracy is retained. (III, 39)

The end was nigh

This final section has a wistfully hypothetical air about it because, within a few short years the entire world it describes would be swept away.

Let us imagine that Cicero was half way through writing the book when, in 51 BC, he was called on to take up the governorship of Cilicia (the southern coast of modern Turkey) and served throughout the year 50.

This meant that he was out of Rome as the political confrontation between Caesar and the Senate came to a head. there was a flurry of proposals and counter proposals in December 50, all of which failed and prompted Caesar, in January 49, to cross with his army from Cisalpine Gaul where he held an official post, into mainland Italy, where he didn’t, thus breaking the law, making himself an outlaw, and sparking the five year civil war between himself and Pompey and his followers.

When peace was restored in 45 BC, Caesar had himself declared dictator for life thus turning the entire Roman constitution into a hollow shell and rendering On the laws, with their pages of pedantic footling about precise constitutional arrangements, redundant overnight. It became overnight a record of a specific historical moment, which was eclipsed before the book could even be completed.

Thoughts

Cicero is frequently held up as the godfather of humanism. Finding, translating and commenting on his books was a central element in the Renaissance, which saw the creation of modern ideas of humanism. (“Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.” Lumen).

However, as my close readings of De rerum deorumDe republica and De legibus amply demonstrate, Cicero’s ‘humanism’ is crucially, vitally, centrally based on his theism, his belief in One God who created human beings and implanted in them fragments of the Divine Reason which underpin all our values, morality, law, justice and statecraft.

Thus, in a nutshell: humanism derives from religious belief. Without its religious underpinning, humanism is nothing. It becomes a wish, a hope, a dream, with no factual or logical basis. I don’t say this to undermine humanistic values. I am probably a humanistic progressive liberal myself. Where I appear to differ from most of my tribe is I don’t believe these truths to be self evident. There are other ways of being human, other cultures, other values completely different from ours, probably the majority of human lives have very much not been lived according to these values. Several points follow:

1. We do not have the right to compel these other cultures into adherence to our values. That is no different from Victorian missionaries trying to convert tribes in Africa or Asia or Australia to their narrow Christian culture.

2. If we want to defend our values effectively against those who threaten them, for example Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, we must base them on really secure foundations, not wishes or aspirations. Far stronger foundations than Cicero, who wrote all these fancy words only to have his head cut off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. The sword is mightier than the pen.

* Cicero’s self promotion

It’s further evidence of Cicero’s self-centred narcissism that in several places in book 3 he manages to showehorn into the text the famous events of 63 BC, when he was consul and saved the state from the Cataline conspiracy. He gives a melodramatic account of the tremendous dangers he faced and how he single-handedly overcame them (III, 26) and then has Atticus fulsomely thank him for his efforts.

To be sure, the whole order is behind you and cherishes most happy memories of your consulship. (III, 29)

Cicero also takes the opportunity to remind everyone that he should never have been exiled (in 57 BC) and that’s why it needed no legislation to rescind his exile (III, 47). In other words, no matter what Cicero is writing about, the text has a strong tendency to end up being about himself.

There is something irredeemably comic about Cicero, like Oliver Hardy pretending to be Napoleon. It’s this hyper-intelligent, super articulate yet comical earnestness which has endeared him to 2,000 years of readers.

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the scholarly and interesting notes. There is a useful list of names and an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation itself is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

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Roman reviews

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (The Plague, page 63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence), a city which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims and slowly comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city.

The plague doesn’t relent but keeps getting gets worse and worse, and Rieux plays a key role in reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city and so on.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary 1940s ideas derived variously from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, and who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these characters come into contact with Dr Rieux at one stage or another, as acquaintances who he treats or as friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of Jacques, the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t stop till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, forced to face up to the fundamental questions of existence – and Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this completely believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself The Narrator, who explains how – after the plague had finally expired – he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and so is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character of The Narrator’s account. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age when he wrote the novel, it is Rieux who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards, and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city and separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big, strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s ‘flail’ or ‘scourge’ swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Father Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. The priest offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There then follow inevitable dialogues between Father Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in a conversation with Rieux, and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Father Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Father Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. It is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Father Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which The Narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of many of the other characters such as Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level of the narrative, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, and arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter of Oran when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates throughout existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned representative of a vengeful Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the ‘injustice’ of ‘bourgeois society’, which stood up for the workers and for the humiliated everywhere. But then Tarrou found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders of his movement (presumably the communists in Spain) claimed were necessary to overthrow the unjust regime.

Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic and brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying, all chime perfectly. It is a great scene. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois, legalistic world of his father, Tarrou has also walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register which domaintes the novel – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. But a saint without a God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books, I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He was a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague struck. When the city is closed, Rambert finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers.

This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another. He is told to be ready to be smuggled out of one of the city’s gates by ‘friendly’ guards, only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches.

Presumably Camus is deliberately trying for a realistic, unromantic and unexciting narrative effect – the opposite of a Hollywood adventure movie. Somewhere The Narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion, his loyalty, his quixotic quest, are contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of most of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows just after the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-stricken Oran, Rambert has realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the political and social issues of Camus’s time, great big issues of justice and commitment, loyalty and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something, somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic stereotype of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, Grand uses his real skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by The Narrator as demonstrating precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which The Narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them as a result of an incident, when Grand telephones the doctor to tell him that he’s just found Cottard as he was attempting to hang himself. The doctor rushes round and he and Grand save and revive Cottard. Cotard recovers but, from that point onwards, is shifty and consistently evades the police and the authorities, since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in Cottard becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks together. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises the disease is bubonic plague far more quickly than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally mass produced and administered, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague or whether the plague declines because it had worked its way through the population anyway.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children around Oran. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a plague victim, Othon is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising the characters like this makes it clearer than when you actually read the novel, just how schematic they are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity.

Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types. Additional comments:

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is lucky enough to be packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife, back in Paris. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist. (Algeria achieved its independence from France after a horrific war, 15 years after this novel was published, in 1962.)

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever and pain and the last-minute falling away of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically. It is described as a character with agency and intent.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto. Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends a serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus was not a philosopher. Although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to anywhere near the same level as Sartre, who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s coterie. But then, Camus himself was ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus can maybe be described as a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour, he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe.

Exile is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging.

He uses the word hope to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his later ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express, various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’ and the medical aspect, as I’ve pointed out, is medieval.

No, we read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter, at around 100 pages each. The Plague is by far the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The realisation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is much more important to Camus than the ideas around ‘the Absurd’
  3. Camus’s horribly long-winded style which makes stretches of The Plague almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post)

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18-year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England, where, by the 1970s, most people thought of ‘the Church’ as a retirement home for nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope via P.G.Wodehouse to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics.

The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its theological tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God.

Politically, the French Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them, deeply cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free – indeed that you are condemned to be free – to make your own set of values and decisions, derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this knowledge involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

So it seems reasonable to speculate that a lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something vital and life supporting – and that now it is lost.

In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is simply that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish, when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or ‘exiled’ by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse.

Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals, without feeling the need to burst into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of other facts about the world we live in, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

This line of thought was prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly ‘existential’ or ‘atheist’ worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. Christianity is key.

When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

Likewise, God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology.

This plucky godlessness only really has meaning by reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. Camus and his characters can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of the throat, some philosophical foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc? It’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before the characters finally feel able to get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity, and so on.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus.

The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his life and actions. But where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text saturated with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are a few passages about ‘the Absurd’ but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. The Law is absolutely central to these two novels, and it is a notion of the law inextricably interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice.

And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux, and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and ever since have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wonder why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and to be a member of the Resistance. That would have been of huge historic importance and also directly tied his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful.

Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels (published in 1942, 1947 and 1956) mention the Second World War, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all. Kafka was another author obsessed by the idea of law and justice.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything – a transparent reference to The Trial.)


Key terms in The Plague

Because the entire translated text is available online, it’s easy to do a word search for key terms. The following results tend, I think, to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

References to Camusian concepts

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

There are, then, surprisingly few direct references to the main concepts which made him famous.

References to Christian concepts

Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more fully expressed and explored.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

References to the law

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

Exile

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’.

This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from the (Christian) belief systems which give our lives purpose.

But it is typical of Camus that this key term is not a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word in the book is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful full scale and in the flesh.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness at all.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

And it is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other. There are some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together pieces from across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure had been covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is documenting the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists from the period handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, probably the locus classicus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be hoped for or feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of of other subjects which provided an opportunity for nudity, such as Christ being scourged or crucified, or the large number of Last Judgements with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the entire show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The Fall of The Damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the fact that the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to torture and even eat. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was a well-established intellectual practice by the early 1500s.

Initially, humanism focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of the classical mythology which informed them. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. It’s relatively small, but this little drawing is among the most ravishing works in the exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round the exhibition, I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ do not appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, which began to seem increasingly odd to me because some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of naked human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

It may come over as a bit paranoid but looking closely at picture after picture which are obviously about sex, which display sexy young people cavorting sexily, and yet listening to the audioguide and reading all the wall labels, you can’t help noticing the complete absence of the blunt Anglo-Saxon word ‘sex’ in any form.You get the strong impression that it is banned, swept under the carpet. You get the equally strong impression that art scholars prefer to use the vague and willowy term ‘desire’, and you also get the strong impression that ‘same-sex desire’ is the optimum form of this, especially when it comes to men, presumably it is ‘desire’ not targeted at women who have, in recent years, become increasingly touchy about being seen in any kind of sexy context.

Eventually, the banishment of the term ‘sex’ and the failure to point out the sexiness of pretty obviously sexy images led me to believe that male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Not just in this exhibition, but in any other you attend nowadays, any way in which a straight man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but I was struck how they are all banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history. Do you see how the sexy or horny male has been quietly and subtly elided from the picture.

I don’t even really disagree with this view, as such; fine for empowering women, bully for same-sex male desire! It’s more the narrowness of perception I’m complaining about, the sheer tedium of having the same narrow interpretations and carefully limited vocabulary crop up in every art exhibition. For me art opens up, expands broadens my perceptions and ideas and emotions. The repetitive use of just a handful of approved ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters for the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men, often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich sugar daddy? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and Bronzino’s show-off depiction of the red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made by Renaissance artists copying newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and sometimes dismissed as rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artists’ workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion created by Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy (in the example below, of a man’s shoulder).

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated. The founding motif in this subject in the Western tradition is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with a spear as per the Gospel accounts of his interrogation, torture and execution.

There is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. If you can ignore the half naked man being scourged within an inch of his life at the centre, the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were (according to Christian legend) executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on ‘desire’ and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s desire or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives which exist out here in the real world. The universal use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses for the same kind of thing, is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and whippings on display in this room. They were crystallised by this image, which was the first one to make me really disagree with the curators’ interpretations.

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned into the unlikely context of even this dark image.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

Anyway, the curators’ interpretation is so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one

Is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed. The fact that the curators completely miss the religious threat and complexities of the picture in order to focus on the ‘power’ of naked women typifies everything about the shallowness , body obsession and unimaginativeness of their worldview.

Number two

The nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. Surely the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is it just a cooked animal or something worse (i.e. a human body part)? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of smothering investigation and analysis under a blanket of tired clichés and corporate buzz words.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them was a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Netherlandish painter, Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons or bulging musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back towards the little bridge.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti, you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – in my opinion – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming, but I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are. There is something a bit rotten about the Italian paintings, they have the official dullness of those packs of Medici Christmas cards you get in charity shops. Sterile. Dead.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity: they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography, the way the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross was deliberately echoed in depictions of the almost-nudity of countless saints who are shown being tortured to death.

The curators discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (often the belovèd of the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel that it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning – and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy – and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony – and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story – but also key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity – but also incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age – and celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men… or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs… or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400 to 1530.

The opposite: by the end the exhibition has suggested that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and significances which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their many-minded patrons, and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.
  • In fact one of the several medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress a bit to reveal some of her thighs. That’s not nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not, in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between total nudity and the various forms of dress and bodily covering to be found in the pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, each of these statuses drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and their requirement to assert that this period saw The Rise of the Daring Naughty Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world (in its iconography) which often achieved a lovely delicacy and innocence.

This late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny, illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, we learn, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way the artist shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in these books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Yes but note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses as they fall down her back.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of a classic Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists’ workshops, the kind of thing you can nowadays find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker. I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull. The triumph of soulless perfectionism.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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